EPIC DETAILS: Sacred Games is a 19th-century novel that breathes the air of now.
Surveying New York City, a place he knows high and low, in Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster exclaims, “I love this dirty town.” The line might now strike us as overwrought, movie-ish. But it’s not hard to imagine Dickens thinking something similar about London. And that’s the sort of intemperate, intimate, shrewd, and knowing love that spills out of Vikram Chandra’s 900-plus-page Sacred Games. The place here is Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and there are times when, reading Sacred Games, you’d swear you were holding the entire teeming city in your hands. It’s a novel to get lost in, a novel to make you annoyed at anything that impinges on your time with it, a novel to make you envy those who are just starting it, a novel to remind us of why we read novels.
Despite the size of this his second novel (following a volume of stories), Chandra, who teaches at UC Berkeley and lives there and in Mumbai, does not announce himself as a writer of grand ambition, at least not in the way you’d expect. We come to know a lot of people in Sacred Games, but in most of the book we’re in the company of one of two characters: Ganesh Gaitonde, a gangster who in a life story he might have borrowed from one of the Bollywood films he loves works himself up from poverty to become rich, powerful, influential; and Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police detective who’s divorced and in his mid 40s and believes that he’ll never go higher than the mid-level position he’s attained. Near the beginning of the book, Sartaj gets a tip about where he can find Ganesh. By the time he gains access to the gangster’s bombproof bunker, Ganesh has killed himself, and along with his corpse there’s the body of an unidentified woman he has shot. An official in India’s secret service assigns Sartaj the job of finding out, on the QT, what Ganesh was doing back in Mumbai.
The book proceeds with first-person chapters in Ganesh’s voice alternating with a third-person narrative of Sartaj’s investigation. Chandra sticks close to these men. But as you’d expect in a book of this length, the author is prone to digressions. They can be as substantial as the inter-chapter telling the wrenching story of Sartaj’s mother as a little girl during Partition or as brief as the story Sartaj’s partner tells of a disgraced colleague to while away the time during a stake-out.
The epic quality of Sacred Games lies in the accretion of incident rather than in any vast sweep. The attention to the details of lives and neighborhoods conveys the feeling that Chandra is taking in more and more of modern Mumbai, and his descriptions and digressions tell us as much as the dual thrusts of the plot.
Chandra does not explain the Hindi words tossed into sentences or the references to Indian pop culture — a smart move. Most words can be figured out from the context, and finding out about some of the references — especially “DDLJ,” the abbreviation for the most popular Bollywood musical ever made — will provide you with some of the great delights pop culture has to offer. There’s a glossary, though I was reluctant to break the rhythm of the Hindi-spritzed English, the sense of cultures mixing that makes the music of the novel.